Summer holidays may have just started but some people in the South Okanagan are already looking ahead to the new school year.
Until yesterday staff and students of West Bench and Trout Creek elementary and Osoyoos Secondary schools were expecting to go elsewhere in 2016/17.
However, a last minute provincial government funding announcement on Wednesday means all three facilities will be open again in September and funding will continue until June 2018.
A small group of students and parents gathered at Penticton MLA Dan Ashton’s office Thursday morning and clapped and cheered when the announcement was read.
“Elated and relieved,” were the first words out of Traci Bourne’s mouth whose two sons attend West Bench. “We live a block from the school and my boys ride their bikes to school every morning.
“This is just very much a community school and that’s the way we want it to stay.”
Luke McCoy, 8, and his best friend Charlie Bourne hugged each other when they found out they would not have to attend a new school in September.
“This is really good news because I’ve been in West Bench since kindergarten and I want to keep going there until I finish Grade 5,” said Luke who has two years left there. “I’ve got lots of friends here and summer’s going to be really good now.”
Letters from Minister of Education Mike Bernier were delivered to the Okanagan-Skaha and Okanagan-Similkameen school districts late Wednesday informing them of approvals through the province’s Rural Education Enhancement Fund announced June 15.
Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson announced Thursday her school district would be receiving $387,300.
In total, Okanagan-Skaha will get $739,219.
At a special board meeting Thursday afternoon in Penticton, trustees voted to repeal the original closure motions for the two elementary schools.
For trustee Bruce Johnson, who stood firm on keeping West Bench open throughout the board discussions, Wednesday’s news was especially welcome.
“I took my stand for a lot of reasons, when we had public meetings in West Bench and Trout Creek, I really heard the parents and the students and the entire learning community about their passion for their schools,” said Johnson, who was a student at the school and served as principal for six years in the ‘90s. “I credit this to hard work and perseverance. The learning communities of West Bench and Trout Creek have been phenomenal, they fought hard, they came up with creative ideas, they took the high road and it all came together with a terrific result.”
Even though he is moving on to new duties next year, current principal Al Beckingham was also pleased the school is staying open.
“This is exciting because it’s been a tough year for the West Bench community — an emotional roller coaster — so we’re really excited to keep the community together,” he said. “This morning the emails have been rolling in, lots of phone calls so for parents it’s a huge relief. I had some hugs this morning from staff, people are pretty happy.
“(Leaving is) bitter-sweet and I’m going to miss it. This is a very special community.”
Gillian Stevens has two girls who attend Trout Creek and admitted the atmosphere at Wednesday’s year-end barbecue Wednesday was “very somber.”
“It would have been sad if that had been the end but because it wasn’t quite a celebration of an ending and not really a celebration of knowing … so today is really exciting,” said Stevens. “Now to be able to rest assured that this is going to be good in September and everybody will be there and the teachers where they belong, we’ll have stability in the fall for the kids.”
She added the community aspect of the school goes way beyond the staff, students and parents.
“I’m surprised how many community members have been rooting for us as well, older, retired folks who get so much joy watching the kids walk to school in the mornings, it’s an incredible community,” she said. “I also think the kids learn compassion, we have a neighbour who has Alzheimer’s and they watch him and keep an eye on him.
“And it’s the small things, they say ‘hello’ to the older people who are out walking their dogs everyday so it’s important on so many levels and it just brings joy to the community.”
Her friend Meghan Steele, who has one child in the school and two alumni, agreed: “It’s really important to have intergenerational connections. It does help the kids grow and develop.”
In making the announcement, Ashton credited the public for giving him the ammunition to fight the battle on their behalf.
“This has been my number one priority because of each and every one of you, my phone’s been ringing off the hook which is how important this was,” he said. “So when the people speak, people like myself listen and the government listens.
“And this gives us the ability to go to the premier and explain to her how important these schools are to our rural and sub rural communities.
“I don’t think people really realize just how important these schools can be to a community, whether we’re talking about a high school in Osoyoos or talking about two elementary schools in our areas.”